How Social Media is Polarizing Us

How Social Media is Polarizing Us

I’ve been thoroughly dismayed by Facebook the past couple of years. Maybe it’s a quirk of memory, but I don’t remember my feed being so full of political sparring and overwhelming anger between 2009 to 2012. Outrage has become the default position of my peers, and it doesn’t show any sign of diminishing.


As anyone who has ever engaged in a spirited debate knows, a mind can’t be changed from without – it has to change from within. While appealing to sentiment is more effective than using cool rationality, our beliefs are like muscles – they only get stronger when stressed and challenged. In addition, as Charlie Munger, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, has said: “[when] you start shouting orthodox ideology out, what you’re doing is pounding it in, pounding it in, and you’re gradually ruining your mind.”

This is a devilish feature of human nature, and means that beliefs are almost invincible – the more they’re repeated, the more they’re believed, and the more they’re challenged, the more they’re believed. Thus, the only way to weaken a belief is to let it be – to leave it alone. The longer it’s disregarded the weaker it gets. Any attention, positive or negative, acts as fuel for the fire.

This is why social media, like Facebook, is so powerful. Chances are one of our hundreds (or thousands) of friends or acquaintances is going to be thinking and talking about one of our deep seated beliefs at any given time of day; especially if these beliefs are political in nature and related to a salient event. In the past, we weren’t likely to be constantly confronted with such topics unless we always had the news on in the background. And, even then, phones command our attention much more actively than TVs ever did.

Today, however, not only are we continuously confronted with political and societal outrages, but the personal nature of Facebook means that our emotional responses are on steroids. If we agree with the statement, article or video posted, we don’t just like the video, we like our friend as well. And, by “liking” or commenting on the shared snippet, we reaffirm our belief and our friendship. On the other hand, if we thoroughly disagree with the message posted, and decide to jump into the comment thread to “set our friend straight”, we’re only reaffirming our own belief and prompting our friend to reaffirm theirs. It’s a race to the bottom, and a game where both sides get stronger – making mutually assured destruction the only available outcome.

This is how polarization occurs. In a certain sense, there’s no way around this. The only way out is to opt out by disabling one’s account. Dozens of my friends have gone this way and claim that they feel “much better” and “calmer” since the change. Me? I’m addicted. And I love getting embroiled in long threads of argumentation. Though it’s likely not good for my blood pressure at times, I’m able to laugh off the conflicts and move on. But even through the laughs, I’m probably pounding my beliefs in even deeper. There’s a danger in engaging. Attention is hunger for all beliefs – big, small, petty, and dangerous.

How New York's largest hospital system is predicting COVID-19 spikes

Northwell Health is using insights from website traffic to forecast COVID-19 hospitalizations two weeks in the future.

Credit: Getty Images
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • The machine-learning algorithm works by analyzing the online behavior of visitors to the Northwell Health website and comparing that data to future COVID-19 hospitalizations.
  • The tool, which uses anonymized data, has so far predicted hospitalizations with an accuracy rate of 80 percent.
  • Machine-learning tools are helping health-care professionals worldwide better constrain and treat COVID-19.
Keep reading Show less

3,000-pound Triceratops skull unearthed in South Dakota

"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," said lead paleontologist David Schmidt.

Excavation of a triceratops skull in South Dakota.

Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
Surprising Science
  • The triceratops skull was first discovered in 2019, but was excavated over the summer of 2020.
  • It was discovered in the South Dakota Badlands, an area where the Triceratops roamed some 66 million years ago.
  • Studying dinosaurs helps scientists better understand the evolution of all life on Earth.
Keep reading Show less

Put on a happy face? “Deep acting” associated with improved work life

New research suggests you can't fake your emotional state to improve your work life — you have to feel it.

Credit: Columbia Pictures
Personal Growth
  • Deep acting is the work strategy of regulating your emotions to match a desired state.
  • New research suggests that deep acting reduces fatigue, improves trust, and advances goal progress over other regulation strategies.
  • Further research suggests learning to attune our emotions for deep acting is a beneficial work-life strategy.
  • Keep reading Show less

    World's oldest work of art found in a hidden Indonesian valley

    Archaeologists discover a cave painting of a wild pig that is now the world's oldest dated work of representational art.

    Pig painting at Leang Tedongnge in Indonesia, made at 45,500 years ago.

    Credit: Maxime Aubert
    Surprising Science
    • Archaeologists find a cave painting of a wild pig that is at least 45,500 years old.
    • The painting is the earliest known work of representational art.
    • The discovery was made in a remote valley on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.
    Keep reading Show less
    Mind & Brain

    What can Avicenna teach us about the mind-body problem?

    The Persian polymath and philosopher of the Islamic Golden Age teaches us about self-awareness.

    Scroll down to load more…
    Quantcast